Prisons chief deflects blame for failures, angering senators

Jul 26, 2022, 4:03 PM | Updated: Jul 27, 2022, 7:16 am
Michael Carvajal, director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, is sworn in to testify as the Senate P...

Michael Carvajal, director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, is sworn in to testify as the Senate Permanent Subcommittee On Investigations holds a hearing on charges of corruption and misconduct at the U.S. Penitentiary in Atlanta, at the Capitol in Washington, Tuesday, July 26, 2022. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

(AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

WASHINGTON (AP) — With just days left in his tenure, the embattled director of the federal prison system faced a bipartisan onslaught Tuesday as he refused to accept responsibility for a culture of corruption and misconduct that has plagued his agency for years.

Bureau of Prisons Director Michael Carvajal, testifying before the Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, insisted he had been shielded from problems by his underlings — even though he’d been copied on emails, and some of the troubles were detailed in reports generated by the agency’s headquarters.

Carvajal, who resigned in January and is set to be replaced next week by Oregon’s state prison director Colette Peters, blamed the size and structure of the Bureau of Prisons for his ignorance on issues such as inmate suicides, sexual abuse, and the free flow of drugs, weapons and other contraband that has roiled some of the agency’s 122 facilities.

Carvajal said several times that the Bureau of Prisons, the Justice Department’s largest component with a budget of more than $8 billion — was a “very large and complex organization” and that there was “no possible way” for him to know everything that was going on.

Carvajal’s attempts to deflect responsibility for his leadership failings didn’t sit well with the subcommittee’s chairman, Sen. Jon Ossoff, D-Ga., nor its ranking member, Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., whose scrutiny of the Bureau of Prisons was spurred in part by Associated Press reporting that has exposed myriad crises at the agency.

Further aggravating the senators, Carvajal initially refused to testify, only doing so after the subcommittee subpoenaed him on July 14 — and then, upon arriving in the hearing room, claiming he was there voluntarily. Ossoff withdrew the subpoena immediately before Carvajal’s testimony, only after the director appeared at the hearing.

“It’s almost willful ignorance, and that’s what I find disturbing,” Johnson said of Carvajal’s reluctance to own his mistakes. “Don’t want to know what’s happening below me. Don’t want to hear about rapes. Don’t want to hear about suicides.”

Added Ossoff: “It’s a disgrace. And for the answer to be other people deal with that. I got the report. I don’t remember. It’s completely unacceptable.”

Afterward, Carvajal ran from reporters seeking to speak with him about his testimony. The director, who’s declined nearly all interview requests since taking office in 2020, ducked into a freight elevator with aides before bolting down a stairwell once they realized reporters had followed them in.

Tuesday’s hearing, one of several promised by the subcommittee, focused on years of misconduct and abuse at a federal penitentiary in Atlanta, but the problems unearthed there speak to larger systemic issues in the Bureau of Prisons, such as severe staffing shortages, deficient health care and barely edible food.

The Atlanta prison, a 120-year-old relic in Ossoff’s home state, once housed some of the country’s most notorious criminals, including gangster Al Capone, James “Whitey” Bulger and Carlo Ponzi, the namesake of the “Ponzi Scheme.” Today, it’s a crumbling, medium-security facility — no longer a penitentiary in the true sense of the term — with about 900 male inmates, including people awaiting trial.

Tuesday’s hearing, which featured testimony from Atlanta whistleblowers prior to Carvajal’s questioning, came amid an AP investigation that has exposed widespread problems within the agency, including criminal employees, escaping inmates, a women’s prison known to staff and inmates as the “rape club” because of rampant staff sexual abuse, and critically low staffing that has hampered responses to emergencies.

Witnesses described what they said was known as the “Atlanta Way” — a culture that allowed misconduct at the prison to persist for years.

Carvajal told the committee he only learned of the prison’s problems last year and immediately took action, reducing the inmate population and removing dozens of managers. Despite that, the witnesses said, the facility is still in dire straits.

Ossoff said evidence obtained by the subcommittee’s investigators showed agency leadership was made aware of problems at Atlanta as far back as 2014. Carvajal has been part a member of the agency’s senior leadership since 2013.

Erika Ramirez, the Atlanta prison’s former chief psychologist, said she was transferred to a different federal prison out of retaliation after raising concerns about poor conditions and a rash of inmate suicides. Ramirez said she alerted the prison’s warden, other higher ups and the agency’s headquarters, to no avail.

Ramirez said contraband issues were so prevalent that she confiscated a smuggled microwave from one inmate, only to find it in another prisoner’s cell just a few days later. She said she confirmed it was the same device when she saw the serial number, she said.

Ramirez said the mold-riddled prison had such shoddy infrastructure, elevators were constantly broken and the sewers would overflow into the recreation yard during rain storms, sometimes leaving a foot of human waste behind.

Terri Whitehead, a administrator who left the prison last year, testified there were so many rats in the food service area, employees would leave the prison’s doors to the outside wide open so stray cats could take care of them — an approach she said compromised the prison’s security.

Ossoff told the AP after the hearing that Carvajal’s testimony “lacked credibility at times” and that the director’s claims that he wasn’t aware of the issues at the Atlanta prison until about a year ago “strains credulity.”

In one of the hearing’s tensest moments, Ossoff pressed Carvajal on rampant sexual abuse at FCI Dublin, a federal women’s prison in California’s Bay Area known to staff and inmates as the “rape club.” Among the Dublin employees charged so far, the prison’s former warden.

“Is the Bureau of Prisons able to keep female detainees safe from sexual abuse by staff?” Ossoff asked. “Yes or no?”

“Yes, we are,” Carvajal shot back. “In those cases when things happen, we hold people appropriately accountable.”

“You are the director at a time when one of your prisons is known to staff and inmates as a ‘rape club,” Ossoff said, to silence and stares from Carvajal.

Pressed for an answer, Carvajal said the matter is under investigation.

Afterward, Ossoff took issue with Carvajal’s claims that the Bureau of Prisons can keep female inmates — or any inmates — safe.

“It is demonstrably false that female detainees in the custody of the Bureau of Prisons are safe,” Ossoff told the AP. “It is demonstrably false. And it is demonstrably false that any inmates can rely upon the quality of care and medical care at multiple BOP facilities.”

___

On Twitter, follow Michael Balsamo at twitter.com/mikebalsamo1 and Michael Sisak at twitter.com/mikesisak. Send confidential tips by visiting https://www.ap.org/tips/.

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

AP

This Wanted poster released Sunday, Aug 7, 2022, by the Albuquerque Police Department shows a vehic...
Associated Press

Albuquerque police seek car in killings of 4 Muslim men

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — Authorities investigating whether the killings of four Muslim men are connected said Sunday that they need help finding a vehicle believed to be connected to the deaths in New Mexico’s largest the city. Albuquerque police said they released photos of the vehicle suspected of being used in the four homicides, hoping […]
19 hours ago
Associated Press

Report: Dozens got sick after visiting Kansas splash park

GODDARD, Kan. (AP) — A new federal study said dozens of people got sick after visiting a splash park near Wichita, Kansas, last summer. The study by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that 21 people contracted Shigella bacteria and six others became sick with the norovirus after visiting the splash park […]
19 hours ago
A sign marks the water line from 2002 near Lake Mead at the Lake Mead National Recreation Area, Sat...
Associated Press

More human remains discovered as drought dries Lake Mead

More human remains have been found at drought-stricken Lake Mead National Recreation Area east of Las Vegas, authorities said Sunday.
19 hours ago
Associated Press

North Carolina sheriff stocking schools with AR-15 rifles

MARSHALL, N.C. (AP) — When schools in one North Carolina county reopen later this month, new security measures will include stocking AR-15 rifles for school resource officers to use in the event of an active shooter. Spurred by the elementary school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, that left 19 children and two teachers dead in May, […]
19 hours ago
Republican Kentucky State Representative Savannah Maddox addresses the audience gathered during the...
Associated Press

Kentucky candidates struggle when describing 2020 election

FANCY FARM, Ky. (AP) — Kentucky Republicans came to the state’s premier political event this weekend intent on winning elections in November and beyond, but some candidates aspiring to become governor had a hard time coming to terms with Donald Trump’s defeat in 2020. They gave parsed or tortured responses when asked if Democrat Joe […]
19 hours ago
FILE - Miss America 2018 Cara Mund poses for photographers on the 86th Floor Observation Deck of th...
Associated Press

Former Miss America Cara Mund plans to run for Congress

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — Cara Mund, a former Miss America who gained attention by criticizing the organization near the end of her reign in 2018, plans to run for Congress in North Dakota as an independent. Mund announced her candidacy Saturday and said she would start gathering the 1,000 signatures she needs to get on […]
19 hours ago

Sponsored Articles

...
Sanderson Ford

Don’t let rising fuel prices stop you from traveling Arizona this summer

There's no better time to get out on the open road and see what the beautiful state of Arizona has to offer. But if the cost of gas is putting a cloud over your summer vacation plans, let Sanderson Ford help with their wide-range selection of electric vehicles.
...
Dr. Richard Carmona

Great news: Children under 5 can now get COVID-19 vaccine

After more than two years of battle with an invisible killer, we can now vaccinate the youngest among us against COVID-19. This is great news.
...
Carla Berg, MHS, Deputy Director, Public Health Services, Arizona Department of Health Services

Update your child’s vaccines before kindergarten

So, your little one starts kindergarten soon. How exciting! You still have a few months before the school year starts, so now’s the time to make sure students-to-be have the vaccines needed to stay safe as they head into a new chapter of life.
Prisons chief deflects blame for failures, angering senators